DETROIT – The auto industry needs sharp, young, female engineers, and the recruiting cannot begin soon enough for Kimberly Pittel, a 32-year Ford veteran engineer who worked her way up from the plant floor to a group vice presidency.

“We’re trying to hit it at the elementary level, the junior-high level, because high school is too late. College is too late,” says Pittel, who now oversees Sustainability, Environment & Safety Engineering at Ford. “So we have programs globally that are setting up fun math and science and engineering events to encourage young girls to get engaged and stay engaged.”

Pittel says today’s college graduates often want their first jobs to be perfect fits with their degrees, with reasonable predictability in terms of career development.

“I think we have to sell the auto industry as having more than one opportunity,” she says at the Leadership Summit during this week’s SAE World Congress Experience here. “If you look at it from an automotive perspective, you go in and then you can go just about anywhere inside different skill teams.”

Her message is even more directly targeted at young women.

“What I’m trying to tell everybody, especially women, is that you can have inside this industry any career you want to have,” Pittel says. “You could stay in core manufacturing or go into engineering. It’s been my experience you can actually have five careers underneath the roof of one company should you choose to do that. It’s out there.”

In a casual new “executive interview” format at the SAE World Congress, Pittel fields questions from Carla Bailo, a fellow engineer and former Nissan North America executive who now is assistant vice president-mobility research and business development at Ohio State University.

“Sometimes I think young ladies don’t understand the impact of engineers on all products – things they use every day,” Bailo says. “But thinking about young women, we need more and more engineers.”

Pittel grew up in Flint, MI, and at the age of 16 started working in a co-op position at a General Motors plant in Flint.

After her stint on the plant floor, Pittel advanced to plant manager then moved on to product development, where she helped design automatic transmissions. Her next stop was vehicle line director, which included responsibility for the Focus, Mustang, Escape, Escape Hybrid, Fusion and Windstar/Freestar. Then came assignments in quality and purchasing before her current post in sustainability.

Her new job makes it a bit easier to connect with young people who tend to believe deeply in protecting the environment.

“We talk about sustainability as we recruit young people to Ford,” Pittel says. “They want to know they work for a company that cares about the environment and cares about the community. We’ve changed how we recruit to sell that part of Ford and it’s worked well for us.”

Pittel says she did not carefully plan each of the many steps in her career path, and she was not always excited about each assignment.

“But I will say every move I made was a learning journey, and I was so glad I did it when I was on the other side of it,” she says. “When you’re inside an organization, you tend to think everyone outside that organization isn’t working as hard as you are, that they don’t understand what you do.”

As she moved through Ford, she discovered there are no easy jobs left. “Jobs are difficult no matter where I am. Everybody is important,” Pittel says. “Some days I think it’s a miracle that we can even get a car rolling down the road with all the skill teams that have to pull together to make it happen.”

She encourages engineers to view new job opportunities with excitement rather than consternation.

“If you’re in a position and you’re asked to do something completely different out of your comfort zone, it’s probably the right move for you, because it’s your opportunity to learn a different aspect of that business and be better for it,” Pittel says.

She gives the same message to her own daughter. “You don’t have to be a perfect fit in order to apply for that job or put your name in, inside Ford even. You don’t have to have the perfect background. You’re smart; you know how to problem solve. Get your name in the game. You can do this.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com